It may seem odd for a billionaire celebrity real estate tycoon who lived in a gold-laden penthouse to lean so heavily on working-class appeals. Yet Trump’s rhetoric and use of blue-collar archetypes is not mere pandering. In fact, since the 1970s, such class-based political language and appeals to blue-collar identity have been at the heart of conservative efforts to win over working- and lower-middle-class white voters. Republicans have won the battle for these voters for 40 years by speaking to their blue-collar identity and values.
As blue-collar jobs increasingly disappeared in the 1970s, political commentary and popular culture sought to understand “The World of the Blue-Collar Worker,” the title of one book investigating the matter.
Blue-collar anti-heroes also took center stage in films like “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Blue Collar” and “Joe.” Television’s Archie Bunker not only emerged as a cantankerous fount of traditional values and soft bigotry on “All in the Family,” but an icon of the era’s white, blue-collar culture.
This focus on white, working-class protagonists reflected the political mobilization of workers around a new blue-collar identity politics.
Urban blue-collar whites felt under siege in the 1970s, with the biggest threat originating with the civil rights movement. As the movement undertook campaigns to increase access to jobs, housing and economic opportunity, civil rights activists targeted the policies and practices that maintained the segregated trades and neighborhoods that were a bedrock of blue-collar culture.
Blue collar whites recognized that political norms had changed and that overt opposition to integration had become taboo. This compelled them to create a new political language to defend their institutions and traditions — notably unions and racially homogeneous neighborhoods. They sidestepped race, and instead invoked a blue-collar cultural identity that championed pride, tradition and a loosely defined reverence for hard work.
At the forefront of this change was the new conservative “hard hat” voter, represented most prominently by construction workers. Federal urban renewal and highway expansion had made construction work one of the most lucrative blue-collar employment options in urban America in the 1960s. As federal money poured into construction projects, civil rights leaders took aim at the traditionally Democratic and overwhelmingly white building and construction trade unions that maintained exclusive labor contracts in most urban areas.
This pressure forced the federal government to create equal opportunity pilot programs in Cleveland, St. Louis and Philadelphia. When the Nixon administration finally introduced the last of these programs after years of opposition and revision in 1969, the so-called Philadelphia Plan became the first fully formed affirmative action program in the United States. It directly targeted segregation in construction work.
Philadelphia’s building and construction unions vehemently opposed the program, but they steadfastly denied that they opposed integrating their ranks. Instead, they pointed to hard-won labor and seniority rights that might be jeopardized by federal intervention in the local labor market. They also claimed that the Philadelphia Plan threatened the time-honored tradition of union apprenticeships going to family members first. Although these traditions maintained a nearly all-white union labor force on federal construction projects, hard-hat trade unionists insisted race had nothing to do with their opposition to affirmative action.
Blue-collar whites deployed these “colorblind” arguments in other policy battles as well. Philadelphia also featured the longest-running housing dispute in the nation, where a white, blue-collar neighborhood had fought for two-decades against the construction of a public housing complex. Civil rights and open housing activists viewed public housing as a solution to the twin problems of inadequate low-income housing and residential segregation.
Whites, however, overwhelmingly viewed public housing as undesirable “black housing.”
Well aware of the assumption that their community was racist, neighborhood activists carefully avoided racial dialogues by invoking blue-collar language. “We are a proud people,” one activist wrote of her neighborhood. Unlike public housing tenants, she said her “ancestors worked long and hard” to earn what little they had. She claimed the proposed housing project threatened their stable, blue-collar community of hard-working homeowners.
The blue-collar veneration of hard work embodied by this class-based colorblind rhetoric was malleable and easily appropriated. Although it might have started with traditionally Democratic constituencies such as unions or urban ethnic voters, conservative politicians soon saw an opportunity to win over working- and lower-middle-class white voters.
Ronald Reagan was especially adept at forging this connection. In 1977, he laid out a vision for a “New Republican Party” that would have room “for the man and woman in the factories, for the farmer, for the cop on the beat and the millions of Americans who may never have thought of joining our party before.”
After capturing the presidency, Reagan even embraced the message that blue-collar whites were pushing in front of a union crowd. In 1981, he reminded the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners that, like “working people in America,” he, too, valued “family, work and neighborhood.”
Reagan yoked this positive appeal to blue-collar values with an assault on those Americans who supposedly defied them. A favorite target was the “welfare queen.” The term was racialized and gendered — and his audience knew exactly whom he meant — but the ostensibly race-neutral language spoke to the beleaguered blue-collar workers who believed they struggled through tough economic times on their own while the government helped those who didn’t deserve it.
These traditionally Democratic voters soon commanded a new label: Reagan Democrats. Reagan’s appeal to these voters was not about his economic policies or a simple response to his patriotic optimism. It was the result of his tough talk about the “undeserving poor” and his use of the kind of class-based political language that blue-collar whites had adopted in the 1970s.
Trump is the latest politician to tap this conservative populism to target white working-class voters. His use of blue-collar imagery speaks the language of the racially rooted but class-forward politics of blue-collar identity.
Blue-collar politics have proved potent even as decades of rhetorical and cultural appeals have done little to deliver material betterment for the white working class. If anything, its foremost champions have actually damaged the standing of the white working class. Reaganomics exacerbated the wealth gap while hastening deindustrialization.
Similarly, report after report shows that Trump’s trade war has led or will lead to further blue-collar job loss. Nevertheless, many of Trump’s most ardent blue-collar supporters have stood behind him, even when his policies have threatened their own jobs.
This loyalty has confounded the media. Numerous analyses have largely missed their mark. It is not about specific policies or simple white resentment. Instead, it derives from Trump’s embrace of a distinctly conservative strategy to earn the loyalty of this voting bloc by engaging and venerating their blue-collar identity and values. And for many, identity and values trump economics.